tv Conversation With David Ritz CSPAN May 9, 2015 8:00pm-8:46pm EDT
>> david ritz what do you do for a living? >> guest: i'm a ghostwriter. >> host: what is a ghostwriter? >> guest: a ghostwriter is an author who writes in the first person of another person. >> host: how did you get into that business? >> guest: no it's a long story story. the short end of the story is i was an advertising guy after college and after graduate school i made up my mind i was
going to go to ray charles and talk them into let me do and authorized biography of him because i wanted to win the pulitzer prize and the nobel prize and i didn't know anything about ghostwriting. so i had a hard time introducing myself to him and getting to him but i was able to do it through my tenacity. and when i did this agent said the u. you want to do his autobiography and i said no i don't. and he said e you do. i said i don't know how to do that. i don't know what a ghostwriter does. he said you will earn a lot more money if you do a ghostwritten book because it's a much larger
market for a ray charles book then there is for a biography of ray and i still don't want to do it. i want to do a biography after my own name. then my agent asked me if westin that really changed my life and the question was, which book would you prefer to actually read a book written by someone about you about ray charles or a book about ray charles with ray's voice? i said i would much prefer to read the book with ray's voice. he said that you should write the book you want to read not the one that you believe you should write. that kind of changed everything and then when i got with ray and i discovered there was a musicality and his boys because as you know we learned to speak
before we learned to think. then it occurred to me if there is a musicality and his boys and when i kind of create his voice on the page, in other words when i pretend i am him when do i have me becomes the eye of him i will be sorted making music. there isn't anything i would rather do than to make music rated than in doing ray's voice i discovered i had a gift and i'm not sure what the gift is but it's something about the approximation of a voice. because as you know if you do a transcription, in other words the words i'm telling you now, if they are just kind of transcribed and you read the transcription in the context of a book that is not a good
representation of my voice because one thing i learned early on is that the eye hears much differently than the ear so when you try to create a literary voice it's an artistic act, it's an act of artifice. you are creating the impression that this person talking to you is talking to you in a calm sort of way. in order to do that you have to move from the literal transcription to a kind of scoping i don't know exactly what you call it that you sort of give a person a literary voice and out as i said is art. it's not a clerical function.
as i before begin to do it it was. >> host: did you have any connection to ray charles? do you have any connection to writing? >> guest: i had written in high school and college and i had written advertisement and i had written academic essays and journalism. i had done a lot of writing so i was comfortable with the act but not this act of being a ghost. that was entirely new and you know i went to a college and majored in english. i went to graduate school and i got an m.a. in english but all that collegiate training didn't prepare me for being a ghostwriter. i had never contemplated it read the only two books that i really had in my consciousness were one was the autobiography of
billie holliday lady sings the blues which i loved as a young boy and they knew that would require a ghostwriter. i remember i read the book when i was 12 or 13 and a tad on the cover as told to william duffy and i remember asking my father to his seat and he said he is probably the guy who actually wrote the book. i said no no, no the book is written by billie holliday holiday. it's all in her voice and she is talking and i remember my father telling me that is what he does for her to give you the idea that she is writing about. than i remember asking, does he get to go over to billie holliday's house and my father said i present he does. then i remember i said that's the job i want. and that's the job i have.
>> host: so what may look at these some of the books you have ghostwritten it's a long story, my life, willie nelson. >> guest: it's just about to hit the stores. there i am on the cover. at the bottom. >> host: did you appear on the cover of the ray charles book? >> guest: i have always appeared i think on every book other than -- my name is isaac. but in the beginning and i did the ray charles book and i did a number of books it was important to me that my name was a certain size because i still hadn't gotten over this idea that ghostwriters are looked at as something of a subcategory. but it took me a long time just to be comfortable with that. >> host: another book with
just your name on it. >> guest: that's a whole different story and that's the only time this has ever happened to me. in 1995 i met aretha franklin after chasing her for years. i have done this book with ray charles and the next book i wanted to do was aretha because i loved her. i loved her music as passionately as i love the music of ray charles and she was interesting. so typical of me i will chase after artists and mail them postcards and call them until i can get a meeting and hopefully charm them into hiring me. and in aretha's case i did in the mid-1950s. in the mid-1990s she hired me to ghostwriter autobiography but this was an instance where and it's the only instance where i
didn't deliver the kind of book that i really wanted to write. i have a hard time getting any emotional intimacy with her and i didn't get her to reveal very much about her inner life. so the book came out and i wasn't happy with the book. so i took about 14 years and continued my research on her and in october of 2014 i put out my home biography of aretha that i called respects. i didn't feel i had honored her art or the complexities of her story enough in doing her autobiography. i wouldn't expect to do that again anytime soon. the book was about time i'm ray charles or b.b. king or smokey
robinson or ardent -- marvin gaye. i don't mean they are perfect fix but from a historical point of view if you want to get to know these people and hear them talking to you and hear them telling you their stories in the book that i have done with them are accurate and good and filled with funk and soul and heart. but in the case of aretha i just didn't feel that way and i felt as though i owed it to her to do my own version. >> host: david ritz when you make an arrangement such as with willie nelson or smokey robinson first of all is their nondisclosure agreement? can you be censored by the main author? >> guest: no yeah and i'm glad
you asked me that because that's one of the most interesting things about my book. i give away all the control. i have no control and i remember one year i was at a conference near austin on a panel at web surfers in this biographer said david shouldn't be here because he is a ghostwriter and that's not a biographer. one of the reasons i can't trust his book is because he has no editorial control over the content. and i had to agree with him. i didn't agree with him that i shouldn't be on the panel and i had to point out to him that the holy bible as a ghost written book and we don't know who the author of that is the holy ghost and there are other excellent ghostwritten books. a biography by alex haley is
looked at as a classic but going back to the point of control one of the points i made with that when you give control away when it is an issue you get more control because control isn't on the table as a point of contention. so that the star knowing that he or she has the ultimate editorial content and control over the content relax and you are able to gain more intimacy that way and usually at the end of the process i have gained enough of the trust of the star that i can pretty much control the content of the book. there are times that they don't want this in there and they don't want that in there but
generally i think there biggest addiction of all his control and anytime i can give away control i'm a happier person and i think i work with greater integrity and greater empathy. he does what ghost writing is really all about is empathy and compassion. in order to get people to open up their hearts and tell you what happened in their lives they have to feel as though you are not judging them and that you love them on a certain level and so if i have done well and i think i have, it's because i was able to open up my heart with the people that i work with and established this kind of intimate report. you know in a simple way i am a
surrogate for the person to reach the book. i am a surrogate for the reader. many many many people would like to get to hang out with ray charles or will a nelson for days and weeks at a time and hang out at the kitchen table and hear them tell stories. so i am there, just not for me but you know for all those untold millions of people who want to gain access to these people. >> host: is that possible? guess good it is. i mean one of the other challenges -- >> guest: no it is. i was at a conference over the weekend and music conference in seattle and what do you think the purpose what is your purpose as a writer and i said i
have two. one is to avoid a nervous breakdown and the other one is to sort of make a living. and the two tied together because if you have a nervous breakdown you can't make a living. and if you are making a living you can't have a nervous break down so for me as a freelance writer for the last 40 some years it's real important to make a living and not go. ghostwriting has been a great way for me to keep my head above water from a financial point of view. because there is a built-in
market for stars. they have an audience and also they come to you with a story. you know i have written biographies and novels and essays. i've written a lot of stuff that i keep my concentration on ghostwriting because that's where art and commerce sort of meat for me and i am a commercial writer at heart. i want people to read my books and i want them to have a large audience and i'm conscious of that. i have always been and that is because i come out of the advertising business. i have learned to write that an advertising agency, so i think once a copywriter always a copywriter but as i said before
the surprise for me, i gave up advertising because it came too easy and created a challenge. i think ghostwriting now for 41 years and i'm still challenged because it's hard and you don't ever get it right. the idea were you to ask me to ghost write your book i would have to get to know you. i would have to try to enter into your heart and your head and get a good kind of feeling for how you use words and how you tell stories. i might pull it off then i might not pull it off and even beyond the sword of mechanics of there is also will it be a good enough psychologist to get you to open
up and now i ask you to write and give you enough space which i haven't been able to do in this interview because i have been talking the whole time. >> host: what if you agree to write that book and i said i don't want your name on a? >> guest: that would be hard. that is actually happened to me a couple of times. it's interesting you ask me that because i think i would like to be a person who can answer you and tell you i wouldn't care. i think that would be a more chilled out version of me. however my ego -- now ego i mean one of the reasons i'm happy to be a ghostwriter is because i think had i made it big as a non-ghostwriter as a david baldacci or stephen king or james joyce i would be incorrigible.
my megalomania would go and you wouldn't be able to talk to me. but because ghostwriting calm and ordered to be a ghostwriter, a good ghostwriter and get what it is you have to deal with your ego and you have to subvert and suppress and tend to the hunger of your ego. you can't just have what it wants because what it wants what i told you in the original story it wants to win the nobel prize and wants to win the pulitzer prize and that's not going to happen with a ghostwriter. it's just not. so i thank god for that. i thank god that being a ghostwriter because i have wanted to earn money i have trained myself to tend to the
sort of dying ego. so i am sort of relatively chilled out in that area but not completely. so to go back to your question if you said to me do my book but i don't want your name on it and answer to you might be well, good but give me the other $80,000. >> host: do you get a set fee? >> guest: no no no every book is a different negotiation. there are no rules. you have an agent and your agent usually negotiates with the manager. but every book every book is
different. >> host: somebody else a else you have written is tavis smiley. >> guest: no yeah. >> host: you have written a couple of books with him. >> guest: no this is number three and we are working on number four. the publisher of doubleday at the time a man named steve rubin had tavis under contract for an autobiography and i had just written for steve about walter yetnikoff who was a big mogul in the music business. he was president of columbia records during the michael jackson case. in any event ruben thought that tavis and i would be a good combination said he put us together and i wrote with tavis
his autobiography and then last year he and i put a book together about martin luther king jr.'s last year in his life and recently we have worked together on this book on maya angelou about his relationship to maya angelou but tavis is the ideal collaborator because he appreciates what i do and shows me great respect and also i love how he speaks and i love his voice. he is intrinsically a good storyteller so it's been a great combination. >> host: is the ghostwriting this is a pretty big business? something we don't necessarily know about? >> guest: yes and one area we haven't talked about is a --
ghost which means you don't have your name on it. a deep ghost is a person who has ghost written a book for typically politicians will use a deep ghost because they want to get the idea that they actually wrote the book. i don't know, i haven't done a survey on it but i think i don't know whether majority of politicians books are ghostwritten but a large number of hooks by politicians are ghostwritten. and i will tell you one interesting story about that. i was once on an airplane going to conference and i was next to a guy who is a well-known novelist.
i don't want to hurt his feelings. he said that's interesting and then he asked me which books i had done and i told him. he said the only problem i i have put that as he said i don't have a lot of respect for a person who wants to write his life story and does not do it by himself. and i turned to him and i said why? you can have a great story but not have the ability to tell it. just because you don't have the chops to write it doesn't mean that the world should enjoy it. not everybody knows how to write a 400 page book cohesively and authentically. i mean, it's hard to do it. and so i think there will always
be a need for ghostwriter's and i'm glad because there will always be people with compelling stories to tell who just don't have the training to do it. so it's, i hope to do it until i can't do it anymore. >> host: david ritz what is your connection to marvin gaye? >> guest: well, i loved him a lot and he was another guy i chased after because i wanted to do his autobiography and i just adored him. i had been listening to him ever since i was a kid. in 1979 he put out 1978 he put out an album which was an autobiographical treatment auto
biographical musical treatment of the acrimonious divorce he was going through with his wife. and the critics absolutely panned it and i loved it. i wrote a letter to the "new york times" praising it and arguing with his critics hoping he would read the letter. he did and he called me and we got together and we began working on his book. at the time he was not in great shape. he went to hawaii and england and wound up in europe in belgium. i went to belgium to continue to work on his autobiography and that is where he wrote a scent scent -- sexual healing together, a song which was my way of trying to help him
understand just what he was going through. so anyway we wrote the song together. it was a big hit and he came back to the united states. most tragically he was murdered by his dad in 1984 before he and i had a chance to complete his autobiography. so i took the gear in 1985. i wrote a book called divided soul which was my biography of him and that is again unusual for me because it was not a ghostwritten book. had i been given a choice i would much for preferred to have done his autobiography but i couldn't. he wasn't there to approve it. he was gone so the book divided soul is full of quotes and
conversations we had over the years. but he's an artist. there isn't any artist who i love anymore. he is very aristocratic and sweet and gentle and troubled but charismatic and in a very unusual way. he seems like a prince. he was princely. he had an elevated consciousness but also had a wicked drug problem. >> host: and in fact when he wrote that song you are pretty well gone on cocaine too weren't you? >> guest: we were high almost all the time that i worked with marvin. i don't think i was ever with him when we were tied together. his main thing was taught in at the time i was a heavy pot smoker and always had cocaine.
the answer is yes. >> host: have you made a lot of money off of that song? >> guest: yeah read posts that do still make money off of that song? guess who has been an incredible international hit, helps put my kids through college and it's been amazing how popular that song has been over the years. and it's one of the proudest accomplishments for me because the idea that i would get to work with marvin gaye and that i could help him put into the song what was going through his mind and he'd like tavis was a wonderful collaborator in that he appreciated me and when he saw literary talent because he was a very literary person
himself. he read the bible and the koran and so forth, he was encouraging and full of praise for others. >> host: it seems like you have worked with a lot of african-american writers and ghostwriting. >> guest: i have. >> host: why? >> guest: i just love african-american culture and i love the music and it's always drawn me in. it's what i listen to all day long and it's what i listen to when i was eight, nine years old old. part of what has given me my motivation is that i'm drawn to to the music but then i'm drawn to the musicians so i can try to understand what drives them. what in their past pastor what an airhead or what in our heart enables them to create this
amazing music. so you know my life, i kind of move to the group of african-american music and jazz. >> host: what is your -- >> guest: i am jewish. i was born jewish in new york in 1943. about 71 years old i became a christian in 2005 maybe nine or 10 years ago and it's interesting too because you asked me about african-american music. i have also always been drawn to the african-american church. when i was a little boy i remember going to african-american churches and everyone seemed not to be half half -- having a good time but something happened and there
does seem important in the rich and warm and loving and encouraging. i always had my nose pressed against the glass. when i got to be an old man fit dr. 60 years old i said i think i will go in the church. so i'm in that church and i'm getting the kind of nurturing that i have always wanted to have because the music journey into the church. it wasn't the theology though i mean that's a whole other subject but it's the love and the positive energy and the acceptance of others that i hear in the music. you know, the glow the excitement the kind of
nurturing that i hear in the music that i think is holy. interesting, one thing about aretha is in this book i wrote respect one of the reasons she is as great as she is is because she had a father who was a well-known preacher and the african-american community. his name was reverend cl frank and in one of the things that he the talker is that it's all god, jazz and r&b. in other words it went against the tradition of the times and said he can't sing pop if you sing gospel and one of the reasons she is such a great singer as she has no conflict about that. and that is what i believe. i believe we can listen to hopkins and muddy waters and he
became mbs prayer follows listening to my halia jackson. >> host: nondisclosure agreements, are there things that you would like to put in the willie nelson book that you sign a legal agreement saying now i can put that in here and you can talk about it? >> guest: now i didn't have any nondisclosure agreement. as i told you before they have editorial control so they can cut out what they want to cut out. now maybe that equals nondisclosure but in other words i didn't sign these papers that i cannot tell the world what you told me not to tell. in the case of willie nelson he basically did tell everything but he is a generous guy and he's a gentle man and he didn't
throw anyone under the bus gratuitously. but yes that whole issue of nondisclosure and censorship has never been an impediment to my work other than in the case of aretha where he did kind of feel as though i wanted to tell more and do it more to the story. >> host: has your starter ben and impediment in her lifetime? >> guest: you know it's interesting they imagine that. the music critic robert chris kyle recently did an overview. he did a review of the aretha book and he did an overview of my career. it was a very generous article and i appreciated it very much
but in it he said he thought that my stutter helped me gain the sympathy and empathy of people i talk to because as a stutter i appear to be more empathetic or vulnerable than perhaps i am though i do think i'm pretty empathetic and vulnerable, that in his view my speech impediment has helped me as a ghostwriter. and i think he might be right. i know that i have struggled with it my whole life and someone asked me the other day if you took a pill and it would make your starter go away would you do it? i said i probably would. i still think emphasize with
complete fluency but it's me and i think the great bang about being a stutter as you do have to overcome it. you do have to agree to have an interview with you on national tv and i'm going to stutter and it doesn't look too good or doesn't sound to good but it's me and there is that that it is an emotional obstacle you have to overcome and the other thing you have to think about is that it is an honest representation of my mood at any given time. in other words with you in this interview i had stuttered much less than i normally do because you have made me comfortable,
gesture kind of vibe has. another interviewer maybe was a bit harsher or impatient or was worried about it. i knew you were comfortable with my stutter so i have a stutter but it hasn't been crazy. were you a different person if i'm feeling nervous that this guy is interviewing me i would stutter much more and that would be honest. does that make any sense to you? so in that regard it's a good barometer of what's going on with me and my emotional point of view. >> host: david ritz if a politician approach you to write a policy or history book a would he take the assignment and b what would go into that? >> guest: you know it's
interesting that you mention that. one of my goals as a ghostwriter is to be a political ghostwriter. i would love to write presidential speeches. i may be a kick in the head and i think i have the chops to do it read i think i can get obama's rhythms down but no one has ever offered me the gig but in answer to your question if i like the politician, i mean i wouldn't do it with a politician who i didn't think was up to good or whose politics were way off of mine but if i felt comfortable with the politician's point of view and i felt he was up to good i would positively do it.
you know one analogy about a ghostwriter it's kind of like you are kind of like an attorney in court. if you are arguing for your client, what you are arguing for the client is two words. basically believe me and i will do it if i believe the person. in other words i work with musical stars were having quite believe them and it didn't work out so the idea of doing a book with a politician would be great. and i have done books. i have done books with sports stars gary sheffield was a baseball player laila ali,
mohammed ali's daughter a boxer. i have done all kinds of books and i would love to do a book on a politician. >> host: does your name get out there? once you have your name on a book and someone sees it how does it snowball into another book? >> guest: i am still hustling and i believe in the hustle and you know i will tell you a quick story. when i did my first book the ray charles book i thought it would get a call from paul mccartney nick jagger and eric clapton and hear it for the rest of my life because ray charles is such a megastar. nobody called. nobody called and one of the things i learned is that i can't
count on the books that i have done to generate more work for me that i have too continued to go out. now i have an agent who i love and he is also very proactive and his name is david z. leon i'll but i don't take anything for granted. but i also have to say and maybe this is what kept me as a ghostwriter who has always been able to work, i like the hustle. i like phonecalls and i think it's good to hustle. i think it's good for us to look for work and expose ourselves. i mean in other words to kind of risk rejection they think is good for the soul because to be too protective i'm not going to
talk to this person because they may reject me, that isn't made. it's okay to be rejected but i tried to tell people, if i want to do your book i will look you in the eye and tell you i really really want to do your book. i try not to be too proud. >> host: what are you working on right now? >> guest: well i have a contract with tavis. this is our fourth book together and we are working on a book about the last 16 weeks in the life of michael jackson. so it's sort of a condensed michael jackson book. that is my current. >> host: and after that? >> guest: after that i'm chasing people. i want to do a book with merle
haggard who i love. i want to do a book with the rock star lenny kravitz who i think is great. i have been talking to him and there are all kinds of books. and i'm also working on a novel of my childhood and i'm doing a graphic book with an artist about the history of my relationship to clothing because i'm kind of a clothing not so i wanted to do this graphic book so i'm eyes working on for five things at the same time. >> host: are rewriting in the song's? >> guest: i am. i have recently written some gospel songs with a good pal of
mine. i wrote a song a couple of months ago and i almost would rather write a song than anything. i really kind of love at all. i love ghosting and i like writing songs and i am enjoying this graphic book that i'm doing. i am enjoying this novel but the idea to sit down and write with a musician and to be in the broom when these chords are being created and melodies are being created i find the most enjoyable. >> host: david ritz we appreciate you sitting down with booktv. >> guest: my pleasure.